Historically, Hartford, Connecticut, has been known mainly for one thing: Insurance. Think St. Paul Travelers, Aetna and The Hartford. Now, through a massive public/private initiative, government officials and developers are trying to change that perception. The hope is that a bevy of new civic projects — such as a museum, a college football stadium and a convention center — will put Hartford on the radar of national developers and tenants.

The effort couldn't come at a better time. A survey conducted by American City Business Journals, publisher of 41 business newspapers, ranked Hartford first in socioeconomic stress among 245 cities with populations over 100,000. The study analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data in seven categories, including poverty, unemployment and the number of adults without high school diplomas. “The city has lots of infrastructure problems and crime is really an issue,” says one government official. “The only reason to visit downtown Hartford is because you work there.”

Hartford's revival plan is straightforward: Attract more people downtown, both to visit and live, and retail will follow.

“Building successful retail largely depends on our efforts to make Hartford a 24/7 city, and to do that it's absolutely essential to bring housing downtown,” says Michael Kintner, head of the Hartford Image Project. The Project is a nonprofit agency that promotes downtown renovation.

That housing is on the way. “We have 1,200 new apartments coming on line in the next two years,” Kintner says. “Other projects are moving forward, too, and I'm not even counting the proposals.”

The Early Bird

Projects already in motion seem to have firmed bids for downtown leases. “What's happening is that entrepreneurs are getting in before the leases get pricey,” Kintner says. Fourteen downtown restaurants opened in 2004.

So far, Hartford's makeover has drawn about $2 billion of investment. Of that amount, the city and state funded at least $900 million as part of the newly established Capital City Economic Development Authority (CCEDA). The goals include making Hartford a competitive convention site, broadening its educational and cultural offerings, and attracting new homeowners. Ongoing construction projects are redrawing the city's skyline.

“There are many cranes over Hartford,” says Mayor Eddie Perez.

“Hartford realized it needed help starting larger scale projects, like getting people to live downtown and building a convention center, but it didn't have the financial means. And the state said, ‘We agree with you, but if we put this kind of money behind it we want a state board overseeing the investment.’ That's how CCEDA was created,” notes CCEDA spokesman Dean Pagani.

Suburban Exodus

Over the years, Hartford has shed nearly all of its retail, losing out to its suburbs. The two closest malls are Taubman Centers Inc.'s West Farms Regional Mall in West Hartford and General Growth Properties' The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, both 10-minute drives from downtown.

“In the '40s and '50s, G. Fox and Co. was probably the premier department store in all of New England and we had people coming from all over to shop at Sage-Allen,” says Mike Peters, former Hartford mayor.

That was then. But Fox is gone, as are a host of other retailers. The city has realized that it can't compete for the big-box tenants looking for cheap rents and open spaces, but it does have a plan to carve itself a niche. What's appropriate now, Peters claims, is “creating our own retail identity,” not duplicating the suburbs. “If we try and create the same thing the suburbs have, people are not going to come to Hartford and shop. I don't think you're going to see the Macy's of the world coming downtown.”

The place to scan Hartford's emerging identity and retail potential is Adriaen's Landing, an $874 million, 30-acre project overseen by CCEDA and developed by the Waterford Group. Named for the Dutchman who was the first European explorer in the region and situated alongshore the Connecticut River, Adriaen's Landing includes the Connecticut Convention Center, an attached Marriott Hotel — both slated to open in June — a science center that has yet to break ground, and an adjacent retail and entertainment district, known as Front Street Development, the details of which are still being reviewed by city and state officials.

“We are searching for a developer for Front Street right now,” Kintner says. Last fall, Connecticut and then designated developer Capital Properties severed ties after a contract dispute. Efforts to determine a developer are ongoing. According to Mark McGovern, of the Hartford Economic Development Council, “The RFPs are out.”

“We are moving to the second round of the selection process; about 13 firms are interested,” says Pagani. “Sure, we would have loved to have Front Street open at the same time as the convention center and the hotel but we're not going to rush things and make a stupid decision.”

That makes it a bit early to characterize the retail surrounding the convention center. The Front Street site is set to include “entertainment-based retail rather than big national apparel chains,” says John Palmieri, head of Hartford's Development Services.

One concept being considered is a “Connecticut Fair” showcasing Connecticut businesses, like the sports brand ESPN. ESPN has pledged $5 million for the project and is likely to develop a themed restaurant smaller in scale than the ESPN Zone venue on Times Square, according to Kintner.

Rejuvenating Downtown

Hartford's makeover plans go far beyond its new convention hall. About $67 million has been appropriated to renovate the Wadsworth Atheneum, the country's oldest art museum, and $200 million to redo Hartford's airport, Bradley International. In 2003, the city opened Rentschler Field, a $92 million, 40,000-seat football stadium for the University of Connecticut. Mayor Perez also has pushed the “Learning Corridor” initiatives, which include a University of Hartford expansion slated for 2006 and the University of Connecticut's B-School Learning Center slated to open later this year.

Those projects are what the city has put its efforts into to rejuvenate downtown. Now developers are following suit. One project under way is Colt Gateway, a $110 million mixed-use residential development slated for completion in 2006 that incorporates the familiar blue onion dome of the 19th century revolver factory of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.

And Homes for America Holdings is developing the former armory to gain National Park Service designation as a national historic park, similar to Lowell, Mass. Says Homes for America CEO Bob McFarland: “The trick lies in getting feet on the street. We will have retail going in this fall, though our first retail will be a restaurant presence.”

Another eye-grabber is Hartford 21, a $155 million mixed-use project, also slated for completion in 2006, which is being developed by Northland with support from CCEDA, which committed $30.5 million to the project. Hartford 21 features a 36-story apartment tower that will be the tallest residential housing structure in New England.

The apartment tower offers for-rent apartments made condo-ready, according to Peter Standish senior vice president of Northland. “We are targeting the top end of the marketplace. There's nothing like it in Hartford,” Standish says.

The Northland strategy is to create a cluster of shops, restaurants and public spaces that will spur a 24-hour neighborhood. Hartford 21 is adjacent to Veteran's Coliseum, the home of Hartford's Wolf Pack hockey team and University of Connecticut's men's and women's basketball teams, 2004's national champions. Prospective retail will need to appeal to entertainment seekers and downtown workers, while still providing the new neighborhood with necessities. Says Standish: “We're looking for retail that really activates the streetscape.”

Getting Feet on the Street

From a redevelopment perspective, the goal is to reach a critical mass of new downtown residents. “Once we get up to a few thousand individuals, we will be in a better position to support a larger trade area. As you know, retail follows rooftops,” says Palmieri.

Is Hartford anywhere near critical mass? Not yet, but Peters, the former mayor, is keeping his rally cap on.

“Hartford is on the cusp of making a comeback,” says Peters. “I believe the Convention Center and Adriaen's Landing, along with a lot of new restaurants, including ours, are going to open up the downtown area.”

Peters put his money where his mouth is: Last August, the ex-mayor opened a downtown eatery called “Mayor Mike's.”

Palmieri is equally optimistic. “Lots and lots of developers, like the Northlands of the world, are talking about doing more mixed-use and in-fill development, all of it downtown,” he says. “Plus, the city is bidding out a number of properties in the next 30 days. I think we're going to see a boom in downtown housing.”

Market Profile/Hartford, Conn.

DEMOGRAPHIC OVERVIEW

  • Population (2003 est.): 124,387
  • Population 15 or younger: 30,821 (25.4%)
  • Median Age: 32
  • Unemployment Rate (May 2004): 10.4%
  • Median Household Income, Hartford: $24,820
  • Median Household Income, Conn.: $53,935
  • Crime Rate per 100,000, Hartford: 8,795
  • Crime Rate per 100,000, Conn.: 2,997

Sources: Census Bureau, Capital Workforce Partners, Hartford Info, Dept. of Justice/FBI